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On Asia trip, Obama to get an earful about China

Obama leaves for Asia Thursday, and though he won't stop in China, China's rising influence will be a constant topic of discussion in India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Japan.

By Staff writer / November 4, 2010

A billboard depicting President Obama stands illuminated on a street in Mumbai, India, on Nov. 4. Obama is scheduled to visit India Nov. 6-9.

Rafiq Maqbool/AP



If the expression "elephant in the room" didn't exist, one could imagine it being coined for President Obama's four-country Asia trip Nov. 4-14.

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Or perhaps "giant panda in the room" would better fit the context.

Mr. Obama will not touch down on Chinese soil, but at every stop he does make – from India to Japan, with Indonesia and South Korea in between – China and its economic, political, and military rise will either explicitly or implicitly figure on the agenda.

•In India, Obama will hear of Indian concerns about China's strengthening ties to – and plans to sell nuclear reactors to – rival Pakistan, even as the United States and India discuss a mutual interest in seeing China's rise occur peacefully.

•In Indonesia, the discussion will turn to China's growing naval and shipping presence in key trade and strategic maritime routes.

•South Korean leaders will want to address China's unflagging support for an increasingly aggressive North Korea, even as Obama takes the issue of China's trade practices and currency manipulation to a Group of 20 summit in Seoul.

•In Japan, China's growing assertiveness on everything from economic issues to territorial disputes is sure to be an item on the bilateral agenda and at a summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

"China is going to be the apparition at the table of discussion at every one of Obama's stops on this trip," says David Lampton, director of Chinese studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

The No. 1 topic in all of these countries will be the US economy and prospects for a return to sustained growth, Mr. Lampton says, given the importance the US has as a market for the region's exports. But the leaders Obama meets will have one overarching question on their minds, he adds: Will the US be a long-term counterbalance in the region as China continues its rise?

"All of these countries are looking for an equilibrating force in the region," Lampton says, "and in that context they are looking to the US and asking themselves if the US is going to be around, and in what role."